Kings of Leon is a household name overseas — so much so that the Nashville quartet's fourth album, Only By the Night, quickly took over the top spot of the UK album chart, selling over 200,000 copies in its first week of release. Although the album debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard charts (and current single "Sex On Fire" is a top-ten modern-rock hit), the same kind of success has so far largely been elusive in America, where Kings of Leon rarely gets much mainstream recognition or national radio airplay.
Lead singer/guitarist Caleb Followill sounds conflicted when asked about his band's lack of notoriety here at home. "For us it's like, Are we really mad that we're not on American radio?" he says, calling from Nashville. "Because in order for us to get on the radio here, maybe that means we have to play a certain kind of music — or sound like Nickelback. But then the other part of us is like, Fuck that. You know? What if our record gets on the radio, and people realize that there is music out there that doesn't play by the formula? Maybe that means that those people will seek out other good bands, and maybe things could change in that way."
Followill's willingness to admit mainstream ambitions is very uncommon (and maybe even a somewhat unpopular sentiment) in today's rock community. But he's idealistic — and entirely sincere about the vision he has for Kings of Leon, which consists of himself, his two brothers Jared and Nathan, and their cousin Matthew.
The band's back story is full of the rock & roll folklore that music journalists dream about. The two eldest Followill brothers, Caleb and Nathan, spent much of their youth traveling around the South with their Pentecostal evangelist father Leon, until he resigned his position.
After settling in Nashville in the late '90s, the brothers met a well-established songwriter and producer named Angelo Petraglia, who took them under his wing and exposed them to much of the popular music they had missed during their relatively sheltered childhood.
With Petraglia in the producer's chair and Ethan Johns at the controls, the band made its first record, Youth and Young Manhood, a raucous and energetic (if not fully realized) collection of Southern-rock-leaning tunes. Although Manhood had a Strokesian guitar vibe that aligned well with pervading trends of the time, the Kings exuded a certain charm and sincerity that gave their take on rock revivalism a bit more soul — and helped it transcend any fad-driven hype.
Still, the band's exotic past often overshadowed Manhood's musical promise.
"Initially, people needed something to run with, because when we came out it was on the heels of all the 'the' bands, like the Strokes and the White Stripes and all that stuff," Followill says. "And so they heard our story and they were like, 'Holy shit. We've got something to talk about here.' And they really drove it into the ground."
Those focused only on Kings of Leon's personal lives missed something rather extraordinary. Thanks to improved songwriting, 2004's Aha Shake Heartbreak found the band starting to find its unique identity, even as it continued to embrace its Southern-rock roots. Last year's Because of the Times was even more of a departure; witness the Pixies-esque backward drumbeat and fuzzed-out bassline of "Charmer," or the synthesizer-based intro of hooky first single, "On Call."
On Only by the Night the band continued its partnership with Petraglia and also enlisted the talents of Heartbreak co-engineer Jacquire King. Recorded at the Nashville recording hot spot Blackbird Studio, Night elaborates on the atmospheric paths alluded to on Times — albeit with even more space and texture, which force Caleb's raspy, sexually charged vocals front and center.
"Use Somebody" is a shoegaze-influenced anthem on which the band supports an emotive lead vocal track with noisy accompaniment and soaring background vocals; despite the echoing noisescapes, these flourishes manage to neither steal the show nor run roughshod over the woozy, slow-rolling melodic waves. "Sex on Fire" starts like much of the bouncy, riff-driven material in the band's back catalog, but the chorus is more expansive than anything it has done before. In fact, the song calls to mind U2's late-'80s transition from expert purveyors of American anachronism to an arena-sized spectacle with (for better or worse) an identity all its own.
But Night doesn't sacrifice credibility in its pursuit of grandeur, and it never strays too far from the sure footing of Nathan's rock-solid drumming and Caleb's spine-tingling drawl. The band follows the same "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" philosophy when recording: Even though Kings of Leon could now make records with just about any producer it wishes, Followill cites the importance of remaining focused and keeping a good rapport with the team that's been with them from the start.
"We've been in it together from the beginning, so every time we're trying to do something it's also [Petraglia's] shot at doing something great," he says. "We could go in there with a Rick Rubin or somebody like that, but obviously he's had so many hits, so he's not going to be putting his ass on the line like Angelo is.
"Angelo inspired us and believed in us, and has believed in us since day one. Having him around, to us, seems like a necessity. He's the one who brings us back down to Earth when we start to think we're doing something bigger than what we're actually doing."
This loyalty and ability to recognize each other's strengths (along with a decidedly underdog spirit) has served Kings of Leon well. These traits have also allowed it to evolve naturally — a luxury in this day and age.
"In a way, it's lucky the way things have happened for us in that we've been successful everywhere but America," Followill says. "The record label had to just sit there and fucking let us do exactly what we wanted, because they knew that when the album came out that it was going to sell in Europe. So that has been the best thing that could have happened to us, because we've had the opportunity to actually test the water and do whatever we wanted to do."
Doing whatever they want to do appears to be Followill's only constant guiding force behind Kings of Leon's future. And for him, it seems like craving the validation of the American public is more a matter of personal pride and acquiring respect than it is one of fame and fortune.
"We absolutely want to be able to look back on our career and think that we did something good and that we did it the way we wanted to do it," he says. "Whether or not that produces success or fame or whatever here in America, that's not important to us. We want to look back and not be embarrassed about what we did.
"The other day me and my little brother and my cousin were at a bar and they mentioned some bad review of our album. We all just immediately looked at each other and said, 'I can't fucking wait to make another record.'"